Separatism in Canada - a nation at stake? The example of Québec and Newfoundland and Labrador

Seminar Paper 2005 16 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography



I. Canadian Identity and Separatism: Quo vadis Canada ?

II. The Ontology of Separatism
II.1. Definition and Implications
II.2. The Emergence of Separatism since the 18th century

III. Québec – the Reluctant Province

IV. Separatism in Newfoundland and Labrador

V. Synopsis and Future Perspectives

Bibliography/ Webliography

I. Canadian Identity and Separatism: Quo vadis Canada ?

From a scientific point of view Canada as it is today displays a political entity that is in many ways an intruiging subject of research. It is without doubt one of the most successful countries in the world when it comes to economic prosperity, social development and international activities in connection with a foreign policy which has always headed for war prevention, peace and stability. But whatever unprecedented the rise and the growing global influence of the country have delineated itself since the end of World War II, the interior animosities between the two founding cultures of British and French descendants as well as a surge of immigrants from all over the world have prevented the forming of a national consciousness so far. Is there such a thing like Canadian identity that depicts a common pattern of identification for the entire population ? Canadian identity currently is and has always been a very sensitive matter within the political and cultural discourse both of the country´s elites and the common people. Thus the term identity is more related to certain groups of society than to the country as a whole. For a country with such vast dimensions like Canada it is imperative to have a regional approach to the elusive phenomenon of national identity. That proves to be more reasonable because the geographic character and the allocation of the population in several distant areas of settlement were responsible for the emergence of a regionalism that is now a distinct national feature.[1] Consequently, regionalism is crucial to comprehend the self-perception of Canada´s inhabitants and is not only deeply rooted in ethnic composition and in colonization history but also in past and contemporary economic disparity.

These issues have been a major concern in domestic politics since the foundation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867.[2] As early as the 17th century these insurmountable cleavages were shaped and tightened - long before the Houses of Parliament in London passed the British North America Act [3] intending to unite the separate colonies of Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Québec), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick[4] in an effort to create a autonomous dominion that should help to calm the hostilities between the settlers of British and French origin. The mere change of the kind of political dependence on the British motherland in the shape of domestic self-government was not able to satisfy the French Canadians[5], though they were allowed to retain their specific French institutions, customs and culture. The conquest of Nouvelle France[6] and the complete defeat of France in North America by the English colonists and British troops sent from Europe culminated in the eventual capture of the cities of Louisbourg in 1758 and Québec in 1759. Three years later, the Paris Peace Treaty of 1763 granted all French possessions to the English.[7] As a result, the remaining Québécois, henceforth exposed to British rule, considered the new arrangements a serious threat of their distinct culture, their language as well as their Catholic faith jeopardized by different kinds of Anglo-American Protestantism.[8] This immediately encouraged the development of a separatist attitude towards British superiority that has been a guideline for the relations to the rest of Canada to date.

Apart from the particular situation in Québec, there are not many common features at all that are shared by the Canadians – expect being Canadian in the political sense of the word. Anglo- and French Canadians, indigenous peoples and the continual surge of immigrants of mostly non-European origin differ in their specific way of being Canadian. Although gene- rations of Canadian governments, whether headed by a French or English speaking Prime Minister, have fostered the idea of fusing the patchwork of provinces to form a nation in its social sense, these endeavours have not been fruitful yet. In addition, this idea of nation building is almost exclusively limited to political will and business interest and has almost no active support within society. It is an artificial concept not yet approved by the majority. Competition and fragmentariness embedded in a multitude of social groups marks Canadian society today.[9]

Another important aspect, which has always had a strong impact on Candian social and economic life is the relation to their powerful southern neighbour, the United States.[10] Plans and ideas of annexion either feared or even sometimes wanted by the Prairie Provinces have been debated throughout the history of both countries. One of the main arguments put forward is the assumed non-importance of Canadian-American distinctions making a union imminent and inevitable.[11] Many Provinces have indeed closer ties to adjacent U.S.-States than to other provinces of their own country. Equally important is trading, the influence of the mass media and cultural transfer from the superpower beyond the southern border. Every factor of the U.S.-Canadian relationship is ambiguous, arises self-doubts or, in contrast, encourages the Canadian awareness of what distinguishes Canada from the United States.

So is the lack of a common identity and nationwide integration the reason for separatist movements that have emerged throughout Canada? Although they are not yet politically influential – with the traditional exception of Québec – they are regarded as a serious indication of a process of alienation beyond the otherwise enviable conditions of economic prosperity and social welfare. This paper will examine the current state of separatist movements in Canada in order to present a variety of reasons which may have contributed to resentments against the central government in Ottawa even by provinces dominated by an English speaking majority and a British cultural history of settlement. Québec will be examined in particular because the reasons that prevail here can be traced back directly to the initial events of Anglo-French rivalry in North America.[12]

In the course of this term paper it will become obvious to the reader why separatism and thoughts of secession are sometimes so favourable and recurrent among Canadians of Québec and Newfoundland and Labrador. Due attention will also be paid to the historical background as it is indispensable to understand today´s cleavages.

II. The Ontology of Separatism

II.1. Definition and Implications

If one makes an attempt of understanding the complex phenomenon of separatism a definition of the term itself is unavoidable. Separatism is a term borrowed from the political discourse and describes the intention to leave a larger political entity in order to constitute a new and politically independent country.[13] The actual manifestation of such demands usually unfolds within an organized movement to obtain sovereignty, meaning to abandon the ties to a certain country and pursue full independence of a people with a distinct national consciousness on a certain territory. If animosities are less severe seperatist thought may also occur in the shape of isolated utterances of discontent and theoretical contemplation that is not regarded as a serious and popular demonstration of political relevance. Especially in multi-ethnic and multilingual countries that once were created artificially by former colonial powers a widespread motivation to demand secession can be observed. That holds true for Anglo-French quarrels in Canada. As a result, a successful separatist campaign leads to secession as the final act of withdrawing. However, these procedures can only be implemented within a democracy wherein the possibility to secede is legally laid down in constitutional documents. Apart from this ideal there is, of course, the possibility of violent or even belligerent separatism. In Canada, however, all parties involved act in a peaceful and lawful way – whatever irreconcilable their antagonist demands seem to be. As yet, there have always been reached agreements that prevented Canadian political disintegration. But that may be subject to change.


[1] Karl Lenz, Länderkunden: Kanada, Darmstadt: 2001, p. 1, 4, 5 and 6

[2] Lenz (2001): p. 71

[3] ibid., p. 267; The British North America Act had served as a constitutional document until 1982 when it was redrawn and amended as Constitutional Act (www.elect.ca/).

[4] Already in 1791 the British Act of Constitution stipulated the Separation of Québec in Upper and Lower Canada. When English Loyalists migrated North to Nova Scotia after the American Revolution and the following independence of the United States, the British administration had to part Nova Scotia in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. That was due to the open hostilities between French Acadians, who were first to live there, and the coming Anglophone Loyalists. from: Wolf in Zacharasiewicz/ Kirsch (ed.) (2000): p. 122 and 123

[5] Dominique Clift, The Secret Kingdom, Toronto: 1989, p. 125

[6] Nouvelle France was founded in 1608 by S. de Champlain by establishing a base named Fort Québec. By 1682 it streched from the St. Lawrence River to the Gulf of Mexico, attracting very few settlers mostly due to unfavor- able conditions. The English coastal colonies saw their continental expansion endangered and took military mea- sures. The installation of a fur trade post in 1670 and the cession of Acadia ( today´s New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) with the Peace Treaty of 1713 strengthened the British presence. The final decision was initiated in 1754 when G. Washington, Colonel of the colonial militia, tried to force the French out of the Great Lake area and the Ohio Valley. Despite the failure of this first aggressive attempt the British settlers from the thirteen southern coastal colonies finally prevailed and put an end to French rule at St. Lawrence River. Nouvelle France became part of the British Empire. from: John Saywell, Kanada einst und heute, Toronto/ Vancouver: 1975, p. 11 to 13

[7] Saywell (1975), p. 13

[8] Clift (1989): p. 49

[9] ibid., p. 18, 99 and 225

[10] Wilfried von Bredow: “Ironische Mythen der Souveränität – Kanadas Sorgen um seine staatliche Einheit,“ in Waldemar Zacharasiewicz/ Fritz Peter Kirsch (ed.), Kanada-Studien: Kanada/ Europa – Chancen und Probleme der Interkulturalität, Hagen: 2000, p. 35

[11] Lenz (2001): p. 277

[12] Bredow in Zacharasiewicz/ Kirsch (ed.) (2000): p. 30 and 31

[13] Ruth Küfner (ed.), Großes Fremdwörterbuch, Leipzig: 1985, p. 692


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ISBN (Book)
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Humboldt-University of Berlin – Institute for English and American Studies
Separatism Canada Québec Newfoundland Labrador Seminar Cultural Studies Canadian Studies Kanadische Provinzen Kanada Separatismus Minderheiten interkulturell Konflikt



Title: Separatism in Canada - a nation at stake?  The example of Québec and Newfoundland and Labrador