I haven’t yet read the original full document published by the English Montreal School Board, but there’s some kerfuffle about the EMBS having released a statement denying the “nationhood” of Quebec. But here are some choice quotes from CTV News to kick off the conversation:

“The school board wants to challenge the Francois Legault CAQ government’s Bill 96 (An Act respecting French, the official and common language of Quebec). The EMSB criticizes it for “unilaterally rewriting the constitution to recognize Quebec as a nation where the only language is French.”

The board is asking the federal government to refer the matter to the Supreme Court for a ruling on its legality. […]

“Quebec is not a ‘nation,'” the EMSB statement reads. “It never has been… Calling oneself something does not make it so and Quebec’s intelligentsia is deliberately misusing the word “nation,” so as to imply a reality that exists only in their self-mirage. The only precise word to use regarding Quebec’s reality is ‘province.'”

I’m in maybe a unique position vis-a-vis the Rest of Quebec, because I came here from the United States, and became a dual Canadian citizen. My family background includes many migrants from Quebec coming down out of Canada during the Quebec diaspora. Growing up, having a “French-Canadian” ancestry was something held with near mythical status. And it’s of course tied up with the how and why I emigrated back.

Returning to the Promised Land after several generations apart is not always as cool as it seems. I don’t want to argue a bunch of political points, and I support everyone learning basically any and every language they can, and the preservation of French culture & heritage. I’ve seen figures suggesting up to 20% of Quebec residents are actually Anglophone (with certain areas being more highly concentrated, like Montreal & the Eastern Townships). Those people also have a legitimate heritage and culture that is as essentially “Quebecois” as that represented by French. Just as do the indigenous and First Nations.

For me, culture & heritage are what we do, what we hold onto, what we perpetuate, and what we remember. Does that make such and such a “nation?” It frankly depends on whose definition you refer to.

According to Quebec’s own very official government web page, the Secrétariat du Québec aux relations canadiennes, regarding Recognition of the Québec Nation, they say:

“There is no common definition of the concepts of nation, people, or distinct society; these concepts therefore must be clearly defined, in terms of both their scope and their legal consequences.”

I think this idea of clarifying consequences is a sound one. But I think it’s somewhat disingenuous to say there is no common definition of “nation.”

The Free Dictionary has a decent set of common definitions:

1. a. A relatively large group of people organized under a single, usually independent government; a country. b. The territory occupied by such a group of people:

2. The government of a sovereign state.

So that doesn’t seem to quite match as a term in English (granted it may have different connotations in French), until we reach the third definition which I see as being most highly applicable here:

A people who share common customs, origins, history, and frequently language; a nationality:

This definition might even be profitably be extended to people of the “nation” of Quebec, who emigrated out to other places, but kept the practices of the language, history, traditions, etc. alive. Those people in my mind are as much a part of the so-called nation of Quebec, as those still residing within it. In fact, in terms of total population, there are a couple million more people who identify as having Quebec-French descent outside than inside the Poutine Utopia.

In any case, there is a precedent which the Quebec Secretariat page linked above refers to, the Quebec nation motion of 2006 in the (federal) House of Commons, quoting the Secretariat:

On November 27, 2006, the House of Commons in Ottawa adopted a motion on recognition of the Québec nation. This resolution reads as follows:

“That this House recognize that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.”

This motion did not create any specific measures favourable to Québec, nor did it translate into actions enabling Québec’s traditional demands to be adequately met. There is no legal consequence from this type of motion, which essentially remains a symbolic political gesture.2

Sometimes symbolic political gestures count for a lot though. As do how people identify themselves and include one another as a participant (or exclude others as a non-participant) in that symbol, or culture, or whatever.

The fourth defintion listed by the esteemed Free Dictionary (linked above), refers to “nation” in yet another sense:

a. A federation or tribe, especially one composed of Native Americans. b. The territory occupied by such a federation or tribe.

Interestingly, I just started investigating if there’s a specific legal distinction associated with use of “First Nations” term in Canada, but this PDF from the Library & Archives of Canada suggests that there is not.

“A term that came into common usage in the 1970s to replace the word “Indian,” which some people found offensive. Among its uses, the term refers to the Status, non-Status and Treaty Indians of Canada. Some Indian peoples have replaced the word “Band” in the name of their community with the term “First Nation,” respecting their distinct language, culture, heritage and systems of knowledge. Although “First Nation” is widely used, it has no legal definition.”

Also interesting in this context is the practice of acknowledging indigenous traditional territory, as described by the Government of Canada here.

Traditional diplomacy

Territorial acknowledgement stems from an old Indigenous diplomatic custom. When an Indigenous person found themselves on another nation’s territory, even when only passing through, they would announce their presence by saying something along the lines of, “I want to acknowledge that I am on the traditional territory of [nation name].” That was a way of saying, “I recognize that you are the nation responsible for preserving this territory and, above all, I come in peace.”

And this page has a bunch of interesting examples of verbal acknowledgements used in various regions and contexts within Canada.

My personal feeling on this subject is that we live in a time period where we can’t afford to leave anyone out, because their cultural practices or identity vary from ours. So what that likely means from my own biased perspective is that if Quebec wants to be a “nation” it has to do so inclusively of the other “nations” whose existence interpenetrates it on many different dimensional planes. So even though I’m actually not that much of a “nationalist” to begin, I personally advocate for civic nationalism over ethnic nationalism, and think Quebec needs to be extremely careful about emphasizing shared civic values over ethnic heritage if it wants to have a strong role in any global future, under any designation.

There’s an interesting CNBC article I found from 2018 which elaborates on certain guidelines around who gets to form a recognized sovereign state:

There are no official international rules, but guidelines are on hand for separatist movements.

The Montevideo Convention held in Uruguay in 1933 said that a region must meet four requirements to become a state; a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and the ability to form relations with other nation states.

Other conditions must be met, including clear evidence that a majority of people have freely chosen independence, that minorities are welcome and respected. A state must also be able to agree divorce terms mutually with the country it breaks away from.

Under those general steps, it is not so simple to become recognized as a country. Quebec might not pass on all of them, in fact. According to Wikipedia, Quebec held two referenda about seceding from Canada, in 1980 and 1995. Both were defeated.

The province-wide referendum took place on Tuesday, May 20, 1980, and the proposal to pursue secession was defeated by a 59.56 percent to 40.44 percent margin.[1]

A second referendum on sovereignty, which was held in 1995, also rejected pursuing secession, albeit by a much smaller margin (50.58% to 49.42%).

There’s an interesting expanded detail about the second referendum “No” side on the Quebec Sovereignty Movement Wikipedia page:

As in the previous referendum, the English-speaking (anglophone) minority in Quebec overwhelmingly (about 90%) rejected sovereignty, support for sovereignty was also weak among allophones (native speakers of neither English nor French) in immigrant communities and first-generation descendants. The lowest support for Yes side came from Mohawk, Cree and Inuit voters in Quebec, some first Nations chiefs asserted their right to self-determination with the Cree being particularly vocal in their right to stay territories within Canada. More than 96% of the Inuit and Cree voted No in the referendum. However, The Innu, Attikamek, Algonquin and Abenaki nations did partially support Quebec sovereignty.

I wouldn’t exactly call that a ringing endorsement by Quebec’s minority groups to the idea of Quebec secession from Canada. The Cree were specifically vocal about remaining as territories within Canada. Here’s a bit more about the Cree position, from the Wikipedia page on the Partition of Quebec, of which there were/are many different types of proposals:

The Grand Council of the Crees and the Inuit of Nunavik in Northern Quebec have both expressed that they will keep their lands in Canada should Quebec secede, invoking international laws that guarantee their right to self-determination. In 1995, a Cree referendum voted 95% in favour of staying in Canada should Quebec secede.

It offers less support for the notion that Quebec deserves nationhood on the grounds that it offers a warm welcome to and respect for minority groups. And not to shit on Quebec too much (because it’s still my home now), but there is plenty of other evidence we could dredge up very easily that especially indigenous minority groups are suffering from extreme and systematic discrimination, violence, and even some would argue genocide both in Quebec – and across all Canada. Maybe Canadian nationhood needs to be re-examined and righted on these grounds, as well as Quebec’s.

I’ve always thought that if Quebec wants to secede, then let’s give back all the unceded indigenous territories, and petition those authorities for recognition, and engage then in meaningful conversations about how best to continue in not just singly our many diverse heritages, but together in our one shared future.

What can I say, I’m a Dr. Bronner’s user: ALL-ONE OR NONE.