Quebec: History and Politics

Early History

Since many continental explorations began in the region, Quebec has been called the cradle of Canada. In 1534, Jacques Cartier planted a cross on the Gaspé and the following year he sailed up the St. Lawrence. In 1608, Samuel de Champlain built a trading post on the site of the present-day Quebec city, and from this and subsequent settlements Catholic missionaries, explorers, and fur traders penetrated the North American continent. The activities of private fur-trading companies ended, for a time, in 1663 when Louis XIV made the region, then known as New France, a royal colony and chose Jean Baptiste Talon to be intendant, or administrator.

The long struggle to protect the colony and the fur trade from the Iroquois (other tribes were allies of the French) and the British was effectively lost in 1759, when the British defeated the French on the Plains of Abraham (see Abraham, Plains of ). By the Treaty of Paris of 1763, Great Britain acquired New France. In an attempt to conciliate the French inhabitants, the British passed the Quebec Act of 1774, under which the colony was allowed to continue its semifeudal system of land tenure and to retain its language, religion, legal system, and customs.

After the American Revolution, many British Loyalists came to settle in Quebec. By the Constitutional Act of 1791 the British separated the area west of the Ottawa River and created the colony of Upper Canada (now Ontario) there. Quebec became known as Lower Canada, and in 1791 the first elective assembly was introduced.

The resentment of leaders of the French community toward the British precipitated a revolt in 1837 led by Louis Papineau . Although the rebellion was crushed, the disturbances in Upper and Lower Canada caused the British to send the Earl of Durham (see Durham, John George Lambton, 1st earl of ) to study conditions in the British North American colonies. His report led ultimately to internal self-government and the creation of the Canadian confederation. Upper and Lower Canada were reunited in 1841, and Quebec became known as Canada East. Responsible (elected) government was granted in 1849.

Confederation and the French-English Question

With the formation of the confederation of Canada in 1867, Canada East became the province of Quebec. Provisions for the preservation of its special, traditional institutions were specifically written into the Canadian constitution. English and French were made the official languages of both Quebec and the Canadian parliament, and a dual school system was established within Quebec. However, in 1974 French was made the sole official language of the province, and all non-English-speaking children were required to attend French-language schools. But the coexistence of majority-French and minority-English cultures within the province and the reverse situation within Canada as a whole have remained sources of tension. Attempts in Manitoba and Ontario at the beginning of the 20th cent. to curtail or abolish separate Catholic schools increased the French Canadians' feeling of isolation. In 1917 they vehemently opposed conscription for World War I.

Twentieth-Century Economic and Political Developments

During the 20th cent. great economic growth in Quebec was coupled with increased determination to maintain and broaden provincial rights. The boundary between Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador was only finalized in 1927, when Newfoundland was not yet part of Canada; although the boundary was accepted by Canada, Quebec has never officially recognized it. In the 1960s separatist groups, advocating an independent Quebec, gained attention. In 1970 separatist terrorists kidnapped a British diplomat, James R. Cross, and the Quebec Minister of Labour, Pierre Laporte. Cross was later released, but Laporte was found murdered.

In 1976 the Parti Québécois (PQ), a party of French-Canadian nationalists formed in 1970, won control of the provincial parliament under René Lévesque . The new government initiated a series of language and cultural reforms whereby the use of English was discouraged; this caused an out-migration of English-speakers and their companies, mainly to Ontario. During the 1980s, however, Montreal attracted many high-technology and financial services companies.

In 1980, Lévesque's plan for an independent Quebec, called sovereignty-association, was rejected in a provincial referendum by 60% of the voters. The PQ was returned to power in 1981, however, and in 1982 the provincial government refused to accept the new Canadian constitution. From 1985 to 1994, the Liberal party, led by Robert Bourassa and Daniel Johnson, controlled the assembly. In 1987 there appeared to be progress on the issue of Quebec separatism, when the Meech Lake Accord was signed, but the accord collapsed in 1990. A package of constitutional reforms was subsequently drafted by the Canadian government and presented to voters in a national referendum in Oct., 1992, but it was defeated.

In 1994 the PQ, now led by Jacques Parizeau, regained control of the provincial government. A referendum on independence was narrowly defeated in Oct., 1995. Parizeau announced his resignation and was replaced in 1996 by Lucien Bouchard , who had led the Bloc Québécois in Ottawa. Quebec was recognized by Parliament as a distinct society because of its language and culture and was granted a veto over constitutional amendments. Separatists said the changes were symbolic and vowed to continue their struggle. They suffered two blows in 1998, however, when Canada's Supreme Court ruled that Quebec could not legally secede on its own and the PQ's majority shrank in provincial elections.

In 1999 polls showed that support for secession had shrunk to about 40% of Quebec voters; in the Oct., 2000, national elections the Bloc Québécois received fewer votes than the Liberals for the first time since 1980. A federal law designed to make it harder for Quebec to secede was passed in July, 2000; it required that a clear majority support a clearly worded proposition and that borders, the seceding province's responsibility for a share of the national debt, and other issues be resolved by negotiations. In 2001, Bouchard resigned; he was succeeded as premier by the new PQ party leader, Bernard Landry.

The Liberals, led by Jean Charest , decisively defeated the PQ in the Apr., 2003, elections, and Charest became premier. In the Mar., 2007, provincial elections, the Liberals lost seats but secured a plurality and formed a minority government. Charest called for new elections in Dec., 2008, and succeeded in securing a legislative majority. In 2012, the Liberals narrowly lost to the PQ, which secured a plurality and formed a minority government headed by Pauline Marois , the province's first woman premier. Two years later, however, the Liberals returned to power when the possibility of secession again became prominent, and Philippe Couillard became premier.

Quebec sends 24 senators and 75 representatives to the national parliament.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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