By Chelsea Craig.
Recent calls for a second Scottish independence referendum have been stirring a conversation among Quebec’s chattering classes who’ve been hard at work this past week drawing comparisons between Scotland’s and la belle province’s own quest to become a sovereign state.
Setting aside the obvious legal distinction between Scotland, which is a country and Quebec, which is not, the people of these two nations do have quite a lot in common. Quebec, one of Canada’s original provinces, joined the country officially in 1867, and boasts a unique heritage about it, built not just off French culture but a distinctly Anglo-Scottish influence too. After all, the anglo-québécois bear a strong Scottish lineage; chief among famous scots-quebecers is James McGill (yes, that McGill.) Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom since the early 1700’s, but like Quebec it’s almost always felt different.
Yet despite some similarities, Scotland’s quest for independence sets itself apart from Quebec’s by not being so harshly divisive – avoiding, if not directly confronting ethnic nationalism. Quebec’s referendum in 1980 led to a large exodus of anglophones and when the No side won once again in 1995, the Yes side turned ugly, blaming wealth and visible minorities.
But there are some Quebecois who, left to their own devices, would have you believe (facts be damned) that Scotland’s path to independence is foreshadowing Quebec’s own. “If they can do it, so can we,” they insist. An embarrassing example of this delirium reared its rouge face, when then premier Pauline Marois took an ill-advised trip (with a full media entourage in tow) to Scotland in 2013. There, first minister Alex Salmond politely met with the premier for all of forty five minutes before kicking her out the door, declining her offer flat out for help with their Yes campaign.
Marois had offered her services and even thought to bring documents from 1995 as an olive branch. Although we can’t be sure why Salmond declined, it can be speculated that in order to help someone win a referendum, you must first prove you’re able to win one yourself. Salmond possibly didn’t want help from a party who had already managed to blow two referendum campaigns. That snub, regardless, forced an embarrassed Marois to scrum alone with some very unamused reporters.
Quebec separatists do share many similarities with Scottish separatists. The Scottish National Party (SNP) is to Britain what the Bloc Quebecois (BQ) is to Canada. Both parties would like to see their constituents become citizens of a sovereign country. The Parti Quebecois (PQ) hold seats in the National Assembly while the SNP holds seats in the Scottish Parliament, Holyrood, in addition to Westminster. But while the BQ were delivered a crushing blow with four seats in the House in 2011, the SNP made major inroads that year to achieve a historic majority.
Certainly, both parties argue they give too much money and ownership to their federal counterparts. During the first referendum campaign in Quebec, Hydro Quebec was front and center in those regards. Levesque held that Quebec can produce its own energy and nurture its own economy, there was no need, he found, to give this money to Canada. Scots had a similar argument about their oil: they could produce and sell this oil independently, claiming a royalty they do not have to share with the rest of the UK, or so their reasoning goes.
But while these arguments do hold some traction, they’re overall misleading. Missing from their diatribes are the vital trading privileges, among other benefits, granted to them thanks to the partnerships they’ve struck with their parent nations. Scotland, for one, does not have jurisdiction over its coast lines which makes the statement about it being “their” oil false. Quebec, on the other hand, receives substantial equalization payments which greatly supports Quebec’s own economic and energy development. Both nations demonstrate a sense of “biting the hand that feeds them,” without realizing that without their parent countries they would not have the luxuries they now enjoy.
Similar questions over currency, borders and passports arose throughout both referendum campaigns. Both Yes campaigns claimed Canada and the UK would lend their currency to the new sovereign states, although neither country has ever explicitly supported this idea. Scotland and Quebec both suggest borders would remain open between them and their old host nation; citizens would be able to freely cross into the other territory as they please. Also frequently asked during both of these referendums was the hot question of whether their borders might be redrawn. In Quebec this begged the question as to whether people would have dual-nationality with Canada, just as Scots asked whether they would still remain part of the European Union (EU).
Nevertheless, the tales of these twin independence movements are quite different. The 1995 Quebec referendum was rooted not in civic nationalism, but a form of racism that pitted one Quebecois against another. After a disappointing “No” result, then premier Jacques Parizeau was quick to blame money and the ethnic vote in a bitter speech that had many Quebecers realizing the ugly side of the Yes campaign. Yet in Scotland the referendum campaign always stayed strictly about the economy and their hopes the Scottish people would be in charge of what happens in Scotland.
Indeed, Quebec is stronger and freer than Scotland. It has more powers as a province than Scotland has as a country.
Quebec has powers which the federal government can’t touch, such as education, health care and unique to Quebec, immigration. While Scotland is subject to Westminster’s control on reserved matters, like social security, energy development, medicine, gambling, etc. Scotland’s No vote was largely due to economic instability and the promise that staying with the EU was the best choice for the future of Scotland.
Yes Scotland ran a campaign based off inclusion. Members for all EU countries who resided in Scotland at the time of the referendum were granted the right to vote, as were British citizens living in Scotland. The voting age was also lowered from 18 to 16. In Quebec, the Yes side fought to shy its own campaign away from le nationalisme ethnique which they failed to do in the end. Anglophone and immigrant rich neighborhoods strongly in favor of the No side, found themselves left off voting lists and No votes were marked as invalid and thrown out. Some 86,000 votes were rejected in 1995, the majority of them believed to be marked “No.”
Following the No victory in 1995, Parizeau stepped down, much like Salmond did in 2014. The elections which followed in both Quebec and Scotland after losing their leaders resulted in the same parties being elected again. Lucien Bouchard took over the PQ in 1995 and Nicola Strugeon, the SNP in 2014. In the end, Quebecers chose to stick with Canada as Scotland did with the UK, despite the enduring popularity of their independence parties.
Support for sovereignty in Quebec declined after the 1995 referendum. Efforts have been made by the federal government over the years to help Quebec feel more loved and included. In 2006, Prime Minister Harper surprised everyone (including his own Intergovernmental Affairs minister) in declaring that his government recognized Quebec as a “nation” within a “united Canada.” Provincially the PQ has not formed government since 2003, with the exception of Pauline Marois’ stillborn minority in 2014 which fell only 14 months later to allow the Liberals to rise to power yet again.
In 2015, the SNP boasted a huge showing of support in the UK Parliament taking 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats. While the BQ has managed to win 54 of Quebec’s 74 seats in the Canadian Parliament before and never succeeded at gaining independence for the province, this time around seems different for Scotland.
The Scots fought hard for the UK to remain within the EU, England be damned. Nationalist ideals are likely to return as the reality of a Brexit approaches. Scotland voted to stay in the UK for economic stability but with that violently taken from under their feet it’s led many to ask what’s next for Scotland. The question is: who’s the better partner for Scotland? The UK, as it’s always been – or does the EU offer something Britain can’t? Scotland may very well chose to go with the EU on this one, if for no other reason than to finally be able to stand up on their own
Chelsea Craig is an advocate for youth engagement in politics. She recently graduated from Concordia University with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and is particularly passionate about Canadian and Quebec relations.
Follow her on Twitter @chelseacraig_