1995: The independence we almost had

The 25th anniversary of Quebec’s bitter defeat

The first time I ever heard the words “vote ethnique” was during my high school Monde Contemporain class. My teacher, a not-so-secret diehard Quebec separatist, explained that it was one of the reasons that many voters felt robbed of a “Yes” majority during the 1995 referendum.

It was claimed that the federal government had rushed the process for immigrants to obtain their citizenship right before the vote in hopes of skewing the results — an accusation that has left a lasting bitterness towards foreigners and minorities.

My teacher also brought up the hundreds of thousands of dollars unlawfully spent by the federal government on their conservative campaign, though failed to mention the ballots illegally rejected by the “Yes” camp.

I’ve been looking back on all this political drama, as the last referendum turned a quarter of a century old on Oct. 30. The separatist ideology has since fallen considerably out of popularity, with 82 per cent of Quebecers siding with remaining Canadians in 2016.

Despite the dwindling sentiment of nationalism, independence remains a major talking point in provincial elections, which brings us to wonder what even still drives this conversation 25 years later.

The economic implications of obtaining sovereignty are almost always the first objection to this matter. Despite Quebec representing just under 23 per cent of the country’s population, our share of Canada’s total debt — which sits at around 37 per cent — would be a major obstacle to our success without the federal government’s help. Our debt to capita and to GDP ratios have also been some of the highest in the country at the time of both referendums.

When the 1995 votes were cast, it was also uncertain whether the Clinton administration would’ve even recognized Quebec’s independence and accepted it as a member of the

North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Without a free trade agreement with its neighbours, it would be nearly impossible for Quebec’s economy to survive.

Not to mention the friction this would cause with Indigenous nations, who would have to renegotiate their position in the country, and with ethnic minorities, for whom the rule of the French tongue may pose an even greater challenge.

But the Bloc Québécois and advocates for secession also do make some good points. Independence would allow us to focus our resources on the development of renewable energy sources like hydroelectricity, and to build up our economy in an environmentally-friendly way.

Less reliant on oil and with full control of major ports like Montreal and Quebec City, the new country could make a name for itself on the international stage and form its own economic and political alliances.

The Bloc’s argument for the inclusion of immigrants is also particularly interesting because it asks newcomers to integrate into Quebec culture — by learning French, for instance — so that they can contribute to a general culture, rather than follow the current Canadian model that they claim encourages foreigners to stay within their bubbles. What they call the “children of Bill 101,” or the second and third generation immigrants who were proudly raised as Quebecers, are proof that this is an achievable and desirable objective.

For now, I’m not sure many expect the third and final referendum to be called. Yet, we can still speculate on what could have happened just 25 years ago, and whether there is still hope for Quebec to regain its sovereign ideology.


Feature graphic by Taylor Reddam


Renegotiating the ins and outs of NAFTA

Panelists discuss how recent trade negotiations may potentially affect Canada

“What we need is for our Canadian government to be standing up far more strongly than what we have seen so far,” said former New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair at a panel hosted by the Concordia School of Community and Public Affairs on March 6.

The focus of the discussion, moderated by Daniel Salée, a political science and public affairs professor at Concordia, was the ongoing renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

“[Canada has] every right to be adamant in opposing that type of purely discretionary imposition of an absolutely illegal tariff,” said Mulcair in reference to President Donald Trump’s controversial announcement on March 1 that the United States would be imposing a 25 per cent tariff on steel imports and a 10 per cent tariff on aluminum imports. “It would affect a lot of jobs in Canada.”

Although the tariffs are set to take effect before the end of the month, it has since been announced that Canada and Mexico will be exempt, pending a new agreement on NAFTA, reported The Washington Post.

“I don’t believe that we should be bullied into a bad agreement. We must make sure that an agreement is a win-win situation,” said panelist Michel Vincent, the Quebec Forest Industry Council’s director of economics, markets and international trade.

For Vincent, the most important element of NAFTA to be renegotiated is Chapter 19, which currently allows Canada to bypass the court system and instead create a binational panel of arbitrators to review the merit of any antidumping or countervailing duties on Canadian products imported into the United States, according to Maclean’s.

“It will be the most difficult point to achieve with the United States,” Vincent said, because in the last 25 years, the United States has lost 173 of the 180 cases in which Chapter 19 was invoked. If this section of the agreement is not strengthened or at least maintained, he added, “NAFTA is not worth a lot to Canadians.”

However, Vincent pointed out that, despite the current administration’s objections, most Americans still share the same values as their northern neighbours. “We should not get misled with the Trump rhetoric,” he said. “I think we have to wait him out.”

In the opinion of panelist Ian Lee, an associate professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, Trump has a particular agenda when it comes to NAFTA.

“It’s really clear; he wants to make it really cheap to do business in the United States to encourage businesses around the world to relocate to the U.S.,” he said.

Lee added that there are many urban legends about international trade. “The common belief that trading leads to poverty,” he said, “is empirically inaccurate.”

“Trump has the tendency to view things from only one side, which is his own,” Mulcair added. “In international trade, you have to look at how it works both ways.”

According to the former NDP leader, the president’s rhetoric takes the focus off more serious issues, like improving the United States’ farm and food trade systems. Although the Canadian supply management system for poultry, dairy and eggs works well and “provides stability to our farming families,” Mulcair said, this kind of support for farmers “is severely lacking in the United States.”

Mulcair said he strongly believes that a failure to renegotiate NAFTA will have a negative impact on both Canadians and Americans. “There are things that can be an improvement to NAFTA. […] There’s a way to make it a better agreement. But the idea that the Americans would walk away from something that important for their own economy, I think that is really difficult to conceive of,” he said. “But you never know with Donald Trump.”

Photo by Mackenzie Lad

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