Reflections on the Ethnic Vote

Jacques Parizeau died not too long ago. He infamously commented that the 1995 Quebec Referendum was lost due to money and the ethnic vote.

I was in high school, in Toronto, during the referendum. I remember my school following the whole thing very closely. I remember feeling relief when the No side won (by a hair) and I remember the uproar that his statements caused afterwards.

A word about my background before we go on. It's a bit of a mixed bag. I have a British first name (Desmond) and a French last name (Rivet). My mother is Sicilian. My father was French Canadian, though not technically Quebecois by birth (he was born in Sudbury). I myself was born in Montreal, so I am, in fact, a Quebecois by birth, but an Anglophone one, despite my last name. To make things more complicated, I spent a lot of my formative years (high school, University) in Toronto, so people often assume I'm from there.

Given this kind of background, it's sometimes hard to say where my loyalties lie, but I think it's probably safe to say that they don't lie with abstract, disembodied ideas like "Canada" or "Quebec" or "Italians". All this to say, if I had voted in the referendum, I would have, of course, voted No.

Anyway, I can remember everyone being quite offended at his remarks, but I also remember thinking, evenly and without rancor, that they were true. The No side probably won because of the ethnic vote - and thank God.

I assume that "ethnic", in this context, is simply a euphemism for "not white and not French". By that definition...well...yes, the Quebec referendum was indeed defeated by the ethnic vote, for the prosaic reason that if you exclude non-whites and non-French, the Yes side would have won (something like 60% of French speakers in Quebec voted Yes).

I don't believe this is a very controversial thing to observe - or at least it shouldn't be. It frankly shouldn't be surprising to anyone. Of course minorities voted against Quebec sovereignty. Do you think the xenophobia started with the Charter?

None of this really matters, of course, because people weren't actually reacting to the truth or falsehood of Parizeau's statements, but rather to the spirit in which they were delivered. What he said may or may not have been technically true, but that's beside the point. The point was the utterly dismissive way in which he said them. That is what people found offensive. He was obliquely implying that the "ethnic vote", as he called it, didn't really count. He was implying that the people casting those votes weren't real Quebecers.

You walk a tight line when you're a staunch nationalist, especially when your brand of nationalism hinges on a single perceived cultural heritage which new arrivals don't necessarily share. I have a hard time imagining how such a thing could ever work without devolving into naked mistrust of anyone who's "outside the circle", so to speak. It's part of the reason I don't consider myself a nationalist - or, at least, not that kind of nationalist.

Other forms of nationalism are possible, of course. The one I subscribe to, if one insists on giving it a label, would probably be considered a loose form of civic nationalism. It's the kind of nationalism that focuses mainly on individual rights and defining the proper boundaries between the government and the governed, rather than the care and feeding of a shared culture. It's a very loose, "live and let live" kind of national identity, barely deserving of the name. At the very least, one's nationality is not closely tied, in this scheme, to one's culture of choice.

This is the sort of nationalism that I suspect minorities in Quebec could get behind, but it isn't the prevailing sentiment. Quebec nationalism has a strong cultural component to it, sometimes flirting with a mild form of full on ethnic nationalism, as evidenced by the Charter fiasco a couple of years ago. The Charter was sold as an attempt to purge religious influence from the civil service, but it came off rather as an attempt to purge otherness instead.

I belong to a school of thought which advocates the separation of culture and state in the same way, and for exactly the same reasons, as the separation of church and state. It is, however, an unfortunate reality in this province that, for a lot of people, their culture is indelibly linked to nationhood and state involvement. It's an odd stance to take, considering how many are against state involvement in religious matters. The irony appears to be lost on many.

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