Contemporary Nationalism will in Québec: the power of the language

Nationalist and secessionist movements are definitely not just few isolated cases. Scotland and Catalonia recent referendum, indeed, prove how alive is the desire of independence.What is Nationalism? Is it the spirit of a nation? Or is it the common background that links a group? Or none or maybe both?

The Quebec flag is seen at half mast at the National Assembly in Quebec City, REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger

As Walker Connor observes: "The essence of a nation is intangible. The essence is a psychological bond that joins a people and differentiates it". Nationalism, then, is a concept in fieri, a principle in ongoing evolution. In history, this conception has changed in connection with the progression and the transformation of social phenomena; nationalism, indeed, shapes itself on human changes during history and on specific cases. The term "nationalism" has a variety of meanings, but it can be summarized in two main ideas: 1) It is the attitude that members of a nation have when they care about their identity as members of nation. 2) It includes the actions that members of a nation take in seeking to achieve (or sustain) some form of political sovereignty. The driving forces towards nationalism are various: economic factors, religion, territorial and historical issues and the most "romantic" reason: language. "Has a nation anything more precious than the language of its fathers? In it dwell its entire world of tradition, history, religion, principles of existence; it's whole heart and soul" (Herder 1881). One of the most interesting cases of nationalism driven by language is that of the Contemporary Nationalism of Québec. Québec is a Province of Canada, and it is the largest by extension and the second most populous area of the Confederation of Canada after Ontario.

It is part of the region known as French Canada, predominantly Francophone. Indeed it is the only Canadian province where English is not the official language and one of the two in which French is the official language (the other is the New Brunswick, or Nouveau Brunswick). Because of its language, its culture and its institutions, it is considered as a nation within Canada. The English-speakers in Québec are a minority recognized by law.The history of politics of Québec has been characterized by many efforts to achieve the sovereignty of Québec.

To be more precise it must be said that during the time Québec asked for different requests: from complete independence, to create a sort of association with the rest of Canada, or even Québec claimed for the autonomy of the Province. Contemporary Nationalism in Québec is a complex phenomenon, because it is based on three factors: ethnicity, language and territory. It is possible, to explain nationalism of the Québec, to take in account just one of the three elements, others decide to combine all them or only two of them. Ethnicity represents the sum of shared cultural practices, perspectives, and distinctions that make one group of people different from another and it is a fundamental lever involved in the struggle to achieve, maintain or enhance the group position in the world. That involves ethnicity as shared cultural heritage.

The most common characteristics that distinguish the various ethnic groups are ancestry, history, language and religion. Language is a tool for communication, an instrument trough interacts with other people, but it is also an icon of national group. Territory is a bounded and defined land. It is relevant because it represents the place where people -who belongs to a nation- live. People consider territory as their property and a symbol of identity too. Some scholars of nationalism movements has a negative conception of Québec ethnic-nationalism, because they rely it to the sentiments of Québec's nationalists, who are concerned with the preservation of a "pure line" population of white francophone within the Québec province. This is, likely, the expression of isolated and narrow views, hard-fought by nationalist theorists and scholars of all sides, because this extermination of ethnicity is considered an offensive and unrepresentative sentiment regarding the independence for Québec.

Nationalism of Québec is, in spite, a multi-ethnic cause movement; moreover the Quebeckers and the Canadians of other provinces don't differ much on their ethnicity, because Canadians are a melting-pot of ethnicity in any province they live; and then the only different ethnicity is the one constituted by Inuits, the natives. Quebeckers and the Canadians of other provinces, basically, differ on language and religion, that are -clearly- elements part of the "ethnicity", but they don't represents the whole.

The best definition for Québec contemporary nationalism, therefore, is civic nationalism. This type of collective identification can seen as being inclusive for every citizen notwithstanding their ethno-cultural origins. In effect, the Québec case tends to illustrate that Quebeckers’ collective identity is defined around specific political values that are not and cannot by nature be shared by every Québec citizen, rather than being defined on Canadian’s ethno-cultural origins. Consequently it is possible to sustain that Québec claim for independence is mainly a language issue. This is so because -nowadays- Québec differs form the other Canadian Provinces basically on the language. It is clear that each Province is different from the others on the basis of economic and territorial criteria, but when we look at Canada as whole we can divide it in two parts only if we use language as a tool: one English-speaking, the other French-speaking (the francophones are concentrated in Québec).

Even if in Canada the religious tradition is different and it was considered as one of the main division (English-speakers are mainly Protestants and French-speakers are mainly Catholics), with the secularization of Québec -during the sixties-today the only discrimen remains the language.

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