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Crumpets and Croissants: Rival Nationalisms in Canada

By Dr Penny Morgan

Having spent some time in Canada, Penny looks at the conflicts which can arise when one nation is divided by two languages. Penny is a retired zoologist who specialised in bird behaviour. Post retirement, she took a degree in law and now she is writing thrillers with an animal welfare theme.

The Constitutional Act of 1791 divided Canada into two legal linguistic communities. Officially, English and French enjoy equal status and rights in Canada, which is "officially bilingual", although Quebec has declared itself as officially uni-lingual. The other province claiming French as an official language is New Brunswick.

Canada and Quebec flags (Wikimedia Commons)

About 18% of the Canadian population speak both languages and English speakers make up about 75%. There has been a bitter conflict around the issue of indigenous languages. For example, government expenditure on supporting the French language is forty-four times higher than support for indigenous languages in the sparsely populated northern territory of Nunavut, where the Inuit comprise most of the population.

The roots of French-Canadian nationalism

In 1759, at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec, the British Army officer General James Wolfe defeated the French who were under the command of the Marquis de Montcalm. But Wolfe was fatally wounded by three musket balls. Montcalm also died the next day. The capture of Quebec City led to the end of French control in Canada. The inscription on the obelisk at Quebec City, erected to commemorate the battle on the Plains of Abraham once read: “Here Died Wolfe Victorious”. In order to avoid offending French-Canadians it now simply reads: “Here Died Wolfe”.

Wolfe's defeat of the French led to the British capture of the New France department of Canada.

Charles de Gaulle

In 1967, a mere twenty-two years after Canadian troops, and other allied troops, liberated France from Nazi occupation, General de Gaulle gave a speech in Montreal which concluded with the following words: “Vive Montreal. Vive le Quebec. Vive le Quebec libre! This speech reflected de Gaulle’s long-standing and profound antipathy to what he disparagingly referred to as “Le monde Anglo-Saxon”. This led him to attempt to incite the Quebecois to aim for freedom, and break up the dominion of Canada. During that trip he gave a series of speeches throughout Quebec which were increasingly divisive and devoid of any pretence at diplomacy. Following this, he returned to France earlier than planned, without visiting Ottawa. The separatist Parti Québécois (a political party) was formed in the wake of de Gaulle’s diatribes. The 30th anniversary of his infamous speech was celebrated in 1997.

But the French campaign for an independent Quebec did not end in 1967, as financial aid was supplied to fund the independence movement. De Gaulle approved covert operations in Quebec, using both separatists and French intelligence agents to foment the separatist movement. An extraordinary move for an alleged ally. At the time, fifty years ago, the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) was detonating bombs around the city in an attempt to spark a revolution that would lead to an independent Quebec.

The repercussions of stoked-up Francophone nationalism culminated in the 1970 kidnapping of James Cross, the British Trade Commissioner, in Montreal. He was threatened with execution and kept on starvation rations for fifty-nine days, after which his captors agreed to release him in exchange for safe passage to Cuba. The kidnapping was followed by the abduction and murder of Pierre Laporte, Quebec’s Deputy Premier. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, father of the current prime minister, invoked Canada’s War Measures Act, which represented a grim milestone in the long history of tensions surrounding the political status of Quebec.

Quebec nationalists argued that the province was culturally distinct from the rest of the country and therefore should be politically independent as well. This was de Gaulle’s legacy.


The first referendum in Quebec on independence (1980) was called by the Parti Québécois government, which advocated secession from Canada. The province-wide referendum took place but the proposal to pursue secession was defeated by a 60% to 40% margin.

The second referendum in 1995 featured the largest voter turnout in Quebec's history (94%). The "No" option carried by a small margin of 54,288 votes, receiving 51% of the votes cast, to 49% for independence. This second rejection of independence was near divorce. The independence issue is still considered unresolved today. But voter fatigue with these ‘neverenda’ may have set in.

In the aftermath of the close result in 1995, the federal government, after unilaterally recognising Quebec as a distinct society, referred the issue to the Supreme Court of Canada, which stated that the unilateral secession contemplated in the referendum was illegal. The pressures put upon the federal government by the Québécois were seen as extracting advantages not shared by other provinces and, far worse, tending to sideline the indigenous peoples, mostly Cree First Nations, one of the largest Indigenous groups in Canada with a rich history and culture.

Cree and Inuit nations

Both the Cree (extending from the Rocky Mountains to Labrador, a region in eastern Canada) and the Inuit of Nunavut organised their own referenda in 1995. Both voted overwhelmingly to stay in Canada – approximately 96% in favour. The Cree have asserted for many years that a unilateral declaration of independence would be a violation of their fundamental principles of rights, democracy and consent. If secession were to proceed, they would seek protection through the Canadian courts.

Bill 96

In May 2022, the Quebec National Assembly passed Bill 96 which strengthens francisation (the process of promoting and encouraging the use of the French language) such that, for example, product inscriptions “must be drafted in French. Inscriptions in other languages may be accompanied by a translation, but they cannot be more prominent or more advantageous than those in French”. Bill 96, which passed in the province’s National Assembly, demands that immigrants and refugees must communicate with provincial officials exclusively in French six months after arriving or face a loss of services. The bill also limits the use of English in the legal system and caps enrolment at the province’s English-language schools. Indigenous peoples claim that Bill 96 erodes indigenous language rights, and the First Nations called it a major step backwards that harmed reconciliation efforts. The Cree are worried. Their feeling is that the francophones do not speak for them. Anglophones worry that they will become second class citizens as they already struggle to access government services in English, and the situation will deteriorate rapidly. The aim seems to be alienation and repression, not reconciliation.


Embracing diversity is clearly anathema to some nationalist-language groups. As one beleaguered anglophone in Quebec said “We can protect a language and community without eliminating the rights of another”. Plurilingualism and multiculturalism should be the goals, and that should extend to the First Nations. There is some way to go.

Notes and references

  1. French is spoken by 23% of the population of Canada. The majority of Francophones (85%) live in Quebec and over 1 million live in other regions of the country. Over 10 million Canadians can conduct a conversation in French.

  2. James Cross Obituary

  3. Quebec moves to protect French language and restrict use of English The Guardian

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