Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 
In Defense of Québec

By David G. Young

MONTREAL, October 18, 1999 --  

Perhaps the most ironic location possible for an international conference on federalism is in a place where the residents want nothing to do with it. But that is precisely where one was held last week, as leaders from around the world gathered at a nearby Québec resort.

The majority French-speaking population here has twice voted for independence from the Canadian federal government, but overwhelming opposition to independence by the English-speaking minority has thus far tipped the scales away from Québec becoming a new nation. Disputes about what constitutes a necessary majority vote were brought to the surface at the conference, when a pro-independence Québec minister stunned everyone by announcing that the province would not be bound by a Canadian Supreme Court ruling requiring a "clear majority" vote before independence could be granted.1

With the Canadian government in a terribly embarrassing situation, President Clinton came to the rescue, announcing in the most direct language ever that he opposes independence for Québec, arguing that a united Canada is in the interests of the United States.2 His interference rightfully outraged many French-speaking Québecois, whose ancestors were forcefully made part of the British Empire after a humiliating defeat on the Plains of Abraham in 1759.

The question Québec's independence is best left to the Québecois themselves. Americans have no reason to oppose an independent Québec, if that is what the people wish. Independence opponents, like President Clinton and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, paint a dark picture of independence, claiming it will disrupt the North American economy through increased trade barriers and massive displacements of English-speaking residents. That Prime Minister Chrétien should engage in such distortions should be no surprise -- he has a vested interest in maintaining his power base -- but Clinton has no business joining in.

There is no reason that an independent Québec cannot be made a full member of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or, better yet, part of an even wider-ranging customs, currency and trade union with Canada and the United States, with Québec residents given the right to maintain dual citizenship. Such conditions would have to be worked out in a transitional period, and their enactment is far from certain.

But they are far more likely to come to pass than the Canadian government would have you believe. Canada has thus far made the independence prognosis seem as unattractive as possible by making overblown threats to confiscate Québec's territory and veto NAFTA membership in the event of independence. Threats of such a self-destructive nature may work to frighten people from voting to make a new nation, but it is very unlikely that Canada would ever do anything about them. More certain actions, like the cutoff of inefficient bureaucratic subsidies from the national government, are most certainly of economic benefit to the Québecois as well as the other Canadians.

Clearly, the healthy trend in the world is toward more international integration, not less. This may seem to argue against independence. But there is no reason -- other than Canadian spitefulness -- that an independent Québec cannot be even more integrated with its North American and European neighbors than the province is today. The modern world has seen a breakdown in the walls that separate nation states. Are Germany and the Netherlands -- two countries that share a common currency, passports, customs, and a defense alliance command -- two separate nation states? Maybe, maybe not. Are they separate nations? Absolutely. There is no reason a similar model can't work for North America.

Clearly, the French-speaking Québecois posses a well-defined culture and identity. They are desperate to maintain their French-speaking culture on a continent where English speakers outnumber 50 to one. For the Québecois, establishing a nation of their own can be a positive step toward reaching this goal. The American government should not stand in the way by supporting the coercive designs of the Canadian government.

  1. The Economist, The Masks Slip, October 16, 1999.
  2. Washington Post, Clinton Declares Quebec Better Off Within Canada, October 9, 1999