Québec independence finds unlikely allies

Québec independence finds unlikely allies

mag_dec2016_coverThis article first appeared in the December 2016 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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By Shawn Lyons

With the world’s focus squarely trained on the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election, Québec sovereignty has been noticeably absent from the headlines.

That’s not to say the issue is dead, at least according to the latest group to come out in favour of independence. It is a group that you might not expect to carry the mantle: anglophones.

In September, a group of about 60 English-speaking Quebecers launched Anglophones for Québec Independence (AQI). The group’s founder is Jennifer Drouin, an anglophone from Nova Scotia who moved to Québec in the early 2000s to study at McGill University.

So how does an anglophone Nova Scotian end up running a pro-independence group in Montréal? Drouin says her ideological shift began the night of the 1995 Québec sovereignty referendum, as she watched the Non vote slowly overtake the Oui from her home in Nova Scotia. Although she was expected to cheer for a federalist victory that night, she recalls that she unexpectedly found herself empathizing with the indépendantistes. “As I’m watching it, I’m seeing the Non [voters] get happier and the Oui supporters get sadder, [but] I wasn’t getting happier.”

Jennifer Drouin, Anglophones for Québec Independence.

Jennifer Drouin,
Anglophones for Québec Independence.

Drouin started questioning why the federalist win that night bothered her. She found the answer while attending French-language universities in Moncton, N.B., and Trois-Rivières. As she learned more about Québec language, history and culture, she realized that the province was so different from the rest of Canada that independence was the only path forward.

Drouin joined the Parti Québécois in 1998 while still living in the Maritimes, becoming an active member after moving to Québec. Drouin’s first flirtation with an anglophone pro-sovereignty group came in 2004, when she started a student organization at McGill University that organized speeches by then-PQ leader Bernard Landry and longtime Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe.

But it was hearing current PQ leader Jean-François Lisée float the idea of an official pro-independence group for anglophones in 2014 that spurred Drouin to action. She started working on her plans in 2015 and was finally able to hold the first AQI meeting early this year.

The arguments in favour of Québec sovereignty are nothing new. Sovereigntists believe an independent Québec would better protect its own language and culture, and could better spend funds otherwise sent to Ottawa, investing them in education, health and other priorities at home.

But AQI is taking a slightly novel approach in its pitch to anglophones, arguing that Quebecers of all backgrounds will benefit if the province can protect itself from unpopular decisions made in the rest of Canada. Drouin points to the controversial Energy East pipeline project as an example, insisting that all Quebecers would benefit from being able to block the plans.LiQ_Sub_Dec2015

“I think it’s some 800 lakes and rivers and waterways that could be contaminated,” she says. “That’s huge, and it doesn’t matter what language you speak; if the pipeline bursts and contaminates our water, you’re going to be affected.”

Drouin also dismisses one of the arguments that has led many non-francophones to oppose separation. She says sovereigntist leaders have long made it clear that minority language rights will be protected in an independent Québec, adding that such rights are already protected and there is no suggestion that separation would change anything.

The idea of anglophones favouring sovereignty does raise eyebrows among some members of the community, including Robert Libman. Libman is a former mayor of the Montréal suburb of Côte St. Luc and co-founder of the Equality Party, a provincial party founded in the late 1980s to advocate for English language rights. “It’s obviously a very fringe group that won’t attract much support from within the anglophone community,” says the longtime activist.

Libman, who represented his short-lived party for five years in the National Assembly before defeat in 1993, scoffs at the idea that sizable numbers of English-speaking Quebecers would jump on the independence bandwagon. He also remains skeptical that the government of an independent Québec would continue to protect minority language rights. “At that point they wouldn’t be subject to the elements of the Canadian Constitution, and they’d have much freer rein to tighten the screws and deepen some of the provisions of Bill 101.”

But Drouin dismisses those fears as outdated, pointing out that Lisée has a long history of reaching out to the English-speaking community. During his victory speech after winning the leadership in October, Lisée gave a nod to AQI and even got a small round of applause when he delivered brief remarks in English, telling the crowd, “As a leader, I will make sure we have an open and fruitful dialogue on who we are and what we can build together.”

Discussions of Québec sovereignty are, for now, purely academic, given that there is no new referendum on the horizon. Recent opinion polls suggest Quebecers have no stomach for the discussion. Even Lisée has pledged to hold off any referendum talk until a PQ government receives a second mandate, which would be at least six years away.

Nonetheless, Drouin and AQI say their work will go on. They plan to take part in events to sell anglophones on the merits of sovereignty, and use their website and other tools to push back against what Drouin calls the “myths” about independence in the English-language media.

While Drouin admits that Québec independence might be a very long way off, she remains optimistic: “All one can do is work hard to make it happen, and keep the faith that eventually it will. Maybe I’ll be a little old lady in my eighties, but I think the idea in and of itself is not just valuable but essential.”
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About Author

Shawn Lyons

Shawn Lyons is a veteran, award-winning journalist who has worked at several media outlets in Québec, most recently serving as Regional News Editor at CBC in Quebec City. He currently works as a freelance writer in Ottawa.

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