Poutine Nationalism Back in Québec

The Canadian province of Québec is rife with spatial divisions, which primarily stem from cultural rifts between the Anglophone, Francophone, and immigrant populations that reside in the multicultural province. Bridging these divides is the illusion of Québec’s progressive identity at the crossroads of France and Canada. After winning a majority in the October 2018 provincial elections, a new right-wing party, the Coalition for Québec’s Future (CAQ in French), has unhinged the myth of a progressive tradition. The CAQ’s platform takes a new stance toward Québec nationalism that departs from the attitudes of many historic separatists, who saw Québec as independent from Canada: Instead, CAQ is focused on fortifying the internal conception of how the space of Québec is filled and how the idea of Québec is defined. Although Québécois’ historic left-wing nationalism has shifted to the right and lost its militancy, it still maintains a xenophobic undercurrent that’s merely hidden behind the facade of social democracy. 

From the 1970s to the 1990s, Québec was divided between separatists and remainers, and though the separatists have faded into the Great White North, Québécois ethnic nationalism has persisted. During the 1980s, politicians seized the opportunity to develop an immigration-friendly approach to sovereignty. Gérard Godin, the immigration minister during that era, viewed immigration as an opportunity for an independent Québec to thrive. After the close 1995 referendum for independence, the premier of Godin’s left-wing party, Jacques Parizeau, claimed that the loss was due to “money and ethnic [read: non-white Québécois] votes.” Parizeau’s remark was effectively a sneer at Montréal’s Jewish citizens and immigrants who voted overwhelmingly to stay in Canada. This sentiment epitomized the anxiety of the far left-wing party to preserve ethnic hegemony in Québec.


If the CAQ expands infrastructure for its voter base, it could solidify the space the voters inhabit both physically and politically.

But in 2018, for the first time since 1966, the Québec government has shifted right while maintaining its core nationalist tendencies. Two policies of the CAQ platform stood out for voters: new regulations on immigration and an expansion of the suburban and rural highway networks in the province. The link between these policies seems to be that immigrants mostly live in cities while white  Francophone voters mostly dwell in the spaces outside of urban Montréal. If the CAQ expands infrastructure for its voter base, it could solidify the space they inhabit both physically and politically.

The proposed highways would better connect Montréal’s suburbs. While it has good intentions of easing traffic congestion on the outskirts of the city, the $10 billion CAD project ignores many infrastructural issues of the subway system at the city’s core. The sprawling, mostly white Francophone suburbs of Montréal stand in direct contrast to the municipality of Montréal, where 87 percent of the province’s 50,000 immigrants arriving in Québec choose to live each year. By invigorating the expansion of highways, the CAQ is drawing on the very tenets of  Québécois nationalism: the spatial manifestation of an ethnically French presence on North American land. 

The CAQ is reasserting ethnic nationalism not only by increasing the connectivity of the spaces in which Québécois nationalism manifests most strongly, but also through restricting who has the legal right to enter Québec in the first place. For François Legault, the new premier of Québec, the goal of reducing immigration by 20 percent is directly linked to an ideological plan for Québécois identity. After meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in January, Legault stated, “when we look at the immigration situation in Québec, the problem I see…is that there are too many who are not qualified, and too many who do not speak French.” He later added in a comment to the Montréal newspaper Le Devoir, “We’d take more French people, and Europeans as well.” It is reasonable to assume that  French-speaking immigrants would integrate more easily into Québec; yet Legault’s latter comments are problematic as they blatantly appeal to ethnic Europeans, who he envisions could integrate into the region more efficiently than the more diverse populations from the broader Francophone world.

The CAQ’s vigorous advocacy in favor of highways and against immigration reveals the continued assertion of white, French dominance on the land and demographics of Québec. Over the decades, the manifestation of this attitude has transformed from a debate of Québec versus Canada to a debate of Québécois versus non-Francophone and non-European residents. But, no matter where the ruling party lies on the political spectrum, Québec’s leaders seem to be guided by the same racist and xenophobic underpinnings that have existed for decades. In a modern Canada that prides itself on welcoming immigrants and refugees with open arms, Québec is lagging behind and desperately needs to catch up.

Photo: Castle Frontenac, Quebec City

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