As a French Quebecer belonging to a generation that was deeply influenced by Harry Potter, it was with great interest and concern that I read JK Rowling’s recent letter on why she opposes Scotland’s independence.
Of herself and her fellow Scots, she justly writes that “whatever Scotland decides, we will probably find ourselves justifying our choice to our grandchildren.”
Well, I’m one of those grandchildren previous generations now find themselves having to justify their decisions to, and I can tell you how it went for us.
I was born in 1990 – exactly ten years after Quebec’s first referendum on independence from Canada. I was too young to vote (or read, for that matter) during its second referendum, in 1995.
As Scots are about to live through the same process, it might be tempting to believe that as Mrs. Rowling writes, a No will really be understood as “not this time, but”:
“My guess is that if we vote to stay, we will be in the heady position of the spouse who looked like walking out, but decided to give things one last go. All the major political parties are currently wooing us with offers of extra powers, keen to keep Scotland happy so that it does not hold an independence referendum every ten years and cause uncertainty and turmoil all over again.
Well, we in Quebec are here to tell the tale. Our extensive experience with the aftermaths of No votes may be of some use to those in Scotland who still hesitate.
Following both 1980 and 1995’s referendum losses, our parents and grandparents were also promised the upper hand in future negotiations. The consecrated phrase was “renewed federalism”; constitutional changes which would recognize Quebec’s distinct character as well as more power and autonomy within the Canadian Confederation.
Attempts at this systematically failed. From the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords (1987, 1992) to the Calgary Declaration (1997), no agreement was ever reached between the two parties. When the Canadian government didn’t arrogantly trample demands, the other provinces made sure we would not step out of line.
Here, the term “Night of the Long Knives” was used to refer to the night of November 4, 1981, when the Prime Ministers of Canada and its provinces agreed in complete secrecy to sign the patriation of the Canadian Constitution – and did so, literally and purposefully, behind Quebec’s back. In the end, the much hyped “offers of extra powers” and “position to dictate terms” amounted to nothing.
To this day, the Canadian Constitution lacks Quebec’s signature. We are still in a constitutional limbo more than thirty years after our first referendum. However, all things considered, these are technicalities.
What is solid fact is that in 2011, in the last federal election, a new Canadian government was elected entirely without Quebec—a first. In the last five years specifically, so many game-changing decisions have been taken against Quebec’s strong collective will that we are now simply used to the dichotomy and annoyed, instead of revolted.
We were made to retract from our commitment to the Kyoto Accord on climate change. We were made to abolish our national Firearms Registry, which had been put in place after the traumatising mass shooting at the École Polytechnique de Montréal. The government in Ottawa uses underhand tricks every once in a while to try to weaken women’s rights.
It has adopted foreign policies which do not represent us, but shame us. It made drastic cuts in culture as well as in research and science. Finally, it seizes every chance it gets to make Quebec more dependable on the dirty tar sands and fossil energies produced by other provinces, a policy that right now means putting a dangerous pipeline – over which we have no power whatsoever – through our most densely populated territory.
No one in the Canadian government feels threatened at all by another referendum. Quebec is The Province Who Cried Wolf.
Meanwhile, we underwent a well-documented phenomenon known as “post-referendum syndrome”. Disillusion, lack of vision and cynicism have plagued our collective space for as long as I can remember; I have never known real political enthusiasm (Except, admittedly, during the 2012 student strike). Social ambition became political corruption. From culture to entrepreneurship everything withered instead of exploded.
If the Yes side had won either time, would we be a debt-ridden, corrupted country? There is no way we can ever know. What we do know is that we are now a debt-ridden and corrupted province. And it is far from certain that we can ever clear away enough cynicism to hold one referendum more, someday. Such a move requires incredible energy and optimism, and those are in short supply. (And charismatic and inspiring political leaders do not come every decade, either.)
Some, of course, will disagree. Many believe that we could be better off if only we were more like the rest of Canada and less attached to our distinctiveness. Others will point out that we can still try to nudge Canada’s nature in the right direction.
However, it’s the world’s nature that Quebecers of my generation would have liked to impact on. The world we live in is going to change, probably drastically – environmental issues will force these changes onto us if we don’t make them ourselves. It would be a fantasy to trust that our children and our children’s children will experience the same paradigms and systems we know now.
Mrs. Rowling mentions that “dramatically differing figures and predictions are being slapped in front of us by both campaigns, so that it becomes difficult to know what to believe.” Probably the answer is no one. Or everyone.
History has taught us that economic trends can only ever really be predicted in hindsight. Numbers can be formed and unformed to the advantage of one side or the other until the day they actually happen. Therefore, once it can be demonstrated that either option offers a reasonable chance of opportunity and success, why not go back to the basics?
Scotland is not Quebec. The UK is not Canada, and Europe is not North America. But believe me, if there’s one thing you don’t want to have to tell your grandchildren 34 years from now, it’s that you thought you were protecting them when you decided to make them experience the next era’s world as spectators, not players.