Mathieu Bock-Côté on identity politics in Quebec UPDATE

Sociologist and columnist Mathieu Bock-Côté takes questions from Maclean's

Click here to read Martin Patriquin’s feature story on the Quebec election.

What follows is a translated email exchange I had with Mathieu Bock-Côté for the piece I wrote about Parti Québécois and identity politics in this week’s magazine. A sociologist and columnist, Bock-Côté is a formidable voice in the debate over which way the Parti Québécois should move in order to achieve its ultimate goal. In Fin de cycle, published last year by Boréal, Bock-Côté argues the roots of the sovereignty movement’s demise lie in its backing away from the issue of Francophone identity in the wake of Jacques Parizeau’s infamous “Money and the ethnic votes” comment following the 1995 referendum.

The interview has been edited.

UPDATE: Mr. Bock-Côté objected to my categorizing his brand of nationalism as “ethnic” in the piece. To this end, I’ve added his response to a question about this, below.

In Fin de cycle, you write at length about the demise of the PQ (under André Boisclair) and the Bloc Québécois (under Gilles Duceppe.) The reason, if I understand it well, is that the two parties dropped the nationalist and identity issues in their platforms. As far as you’re concerned, why did the PQ “de-nationalize the sovereignist discourse to drain it of the dimension of identity,” as you write in the book?

I examined this question in my first book. In effect, the day after the [1995] referendum, traumatized by Jacques Parizeau’s words, sovereignists convinced themselves of the “historical guilt” of Quebec nationalism. We found our history to be cloistered, closed in on itself, xenophobic even. Wrongfully, of course. But that convinced sovereignists of one thing: the sovereignty project has to be disassociated from the historical identity of the Francophone majority. We then had a sovereignism that was spineless, bleached, paradoxically a stranger to the cultural and historical identity to the people it was meant to enfranchise politically. This movement culminated with André Boisclair. It started to reverse itself again after the 2007 election, and Pauline Marois looked to bring the question back to the PQ, with a certain success.

Is the identity component crucial to the sovereignty movement here in Quebec? If so, why?

You don’t build a country by evacuating it of its historical experience. You don’t build a country by washing it of its memory, by bleaching it of its identity. Once we disassociate the sovereignty movement from the history of the Québécois people, we are forced to justify it through weak arguments. We denounce the Harper government, its social policies, its conservative values. But we forget that all it takes is to replace Harper with a progressive government, and all of a sudden we have invalidated the argument for sovereignty. Or we promise that Quebec is going to be a little paradise on planet earth, which is obviously false. This country will have its qualities, its faults, it will have good years and less good years. Like all countries in the world. I’d add one thing: no country should neglect its history. I’m somewhat happy to see that English Canada is itself rediscovering its British heritage. I think that’s good news.

During his tenure with the Bloc Québécois, Gilles Duceppe spoke about ‘civic nationalism’; that is to say, the idea that a Quebecer is anyone who lives in Quebec. Yet given the fact that vast majority of immigrants identify as Canadian first, I wonder if civic nationalism is even possible in Quebec.

Civic nationalism is a legitimate goal. The question remains, though, if openness to diversity is part of an acknowledgement of the historical nature of Quebec identity, or part of its obliteration. I believe one thing: the more French Quebecers assume their identity, the more they will be attractive to new arrivals. But we can’t have any illusions about it: as long as Quebec isn’t an independent country, the immigrants will identify primarily with Canada. It goes without saying. It’s not politically correct to say it, but the project of sovereignty is a call primarily to the francophone majority of Quebec.

To what point has the PQ under Pauline Marois managed to retake the identity territory abandoned by the sovereignty movement?

I think she’s trying to do it. The PQ is rediscovering the fragility of the French language on the island of Montreal, it is more and more robust in its criticism of Canadian multiculturalism. It is trying to find new ways of integrating new arrivals to the Francophone majority. We are rehabilitating the role of history in the sovereignist discourse. It remains to be seen if this will last. But it seems that the sovereignty movement of today wants to close the doors on its denationalization.

I spoke to PQ immigration and language critic Yves-François Blanchet, who said that we should increase French language training of immigrants, and not necessarily decrease the number of immigrants Quebec accepts. Do you agree?

Obviously French language training must be reinforced, as should the teaching of history. Of course. I don’t believe, however, that the existing immigration rates are appropriate. It would be better to adjust them to our capacity to integrate them, here in a small, fragile Francophone nation in North America.

Who is nous [‘Us’]?

There is no nous in Quebec without an explicit reference to the historic Francophone majority. There is a limit to the disembodied and purely administrative version of a collective identity. It’s up to the new arrivals to integrate. From there, it will be possible to expand the limits of nous, as we say.

How is your stance different from ethnic nationalism?

Ethnic nationalism has nothing to do with the project of sovereignty as far as I’m concerned. Ethnic nationalism proposes a static, closed identity, that has as much to do with blood as it does culture and history. I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with that vision of identity. It would be stifling. We can perfectly integrate into Quebec’s culture without having ancestors from Ile d’Orléans. We can perfectly appropriate the collective Francophone memory and political range without being an “ethnic French Canadian.” Thankfully! A country isn’t a blank page. The history of France is not that of Germany or Slovenia. And what history is the basis for Quebec society, if not that of its Francophone majority?

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.