Twenty years after voting in Quebec’s referendum on sovereignty, immigrants in the province say cultural relations are improving, but more progress is still needed.
In October 1995, 2,362,648 Quebecers voted against the provincial government’s move to make Quebec an independent state. The ‘no’ side won in Quebec’s second referendum on the issue, with 50.58 per cent of the vote.
For many immigrants, the result represented a challenge to the old notion of Quebecois identity.
“What we were hearing before ’95, which we don’t hear anymore, is pure laine,” says Simon Jacobs, who immigrated to Canada from England in 1989.
Pure laine, or pure wool, is used to refer to Quebecers whose ancestry can be traced to the original French settlers of the province.
Jacobs says that everything Quebec wanted, in terms of maintaining its identity and creating its own laws, already existed, but that important questions about Quebec’s monetary policy remained unanswered.
“People were saying, ‘I’m American. I’m Syrian. I’m Italian,’ but I didn’t hear, ‘I’m Canadian.’”
He says he voted against separation, though he wasn’t sure if he would remain in Quebec at the time.
“I did not feel this was home,” he adds. “I think after the referendum, I had a change of attitude, and that change of attitude was, ‘Damn it, this is where I live. This is my home.’”
Voting in favour
But not all immigrants felt that federalism was the answer to the question of what constitutes Quebecois identity.
“I didn’t feel pride,” says Abdallah Ghazal about his arrival in Montreal from Syria in 1968. “People were saying, ‘I’m American. I’m Syrian. I’m Italian,’ but I didn’t hear, ‘I’m Canadian.’”
“Anything that’s divisive to harmonious relationships is not good for multiculturalism.”
Ghazal, an agronomist, went on to teach high school science and biology in Victoriaville, QC. In 1995, he voted in favour of sovereignty, and says the decision was largely influenced by the ideas of René Lévesque, founder of the Parti Québécois and defender of Quebec’s independence.
“I admired him because he talked about separation, but also an association with Canada,” says Ghazal. “We would stay a unit of Canada with our own culture and way of life. That’s why I voted ‘yes.’”
Effects of divisive politics
The Parti Québécois, led by then premier of Quebec, Jacques Parizeau, orchestrated the referendum and promoted the ‘yes’ campaign. As the results were revealed on the night of the referendum, Parizeau proclaimed that the ‘yes’ side had lost due to “money and ethnic votes.”
“From the standpoint of harmonious relationships between communities in Quebec, I think it was very divisive,” says Jack Jedwab, Executive Vice-President of the Association for Canadian Studies and the Canadian Institute for Identities and Migration. “Anything that’s divisive to harmonious relationships is not good for multiculturalism.”
He adds that the effects were not as “devastating” as they could have been because Quebec society is more interested in harmony than in division.
“[T]here’s not that big of a difference between Toronto and Montreal in terms of how immigration and integration are managed.”
Ghazal says he was encouraged by efforts of the provincial government that followed to secure rights over Quebec’s immigration policies and preserve the French language.
“I’m for the preservation of Quebecois identity,” he explains.
Jedwab says that while most Quebecers value diversity, Quebec decision-makers often associate multiculturalism policies with the federal government.
“It’s been suggested to Quebecers that multiculturalism is associated with ghettoization, or preserving one culture at the expense of the culture of the majority of the province,” he says. “The reality on the ground is there’s not that big of a difference between Toronto and Montreal in terms of how immigration and integration are managed.”
Jacobs says it’s wrong to underestimate the degree to which policies from the federal government can be manipulated on the part of separatists to cause “a rift,” and points to the niqab debate of the 2015 federal election as a recent example.
“I compare it to a marriage,” says Jedwab of Quebec’s relationship with Canada. “You’ve got to work all the time to make it vital. If you don’t do that, it breaks up.”
He says that for him, and the majority of Quebecers, divorce is not a desirable option.
“The lack of exposure of the general population outside Montreal to different religions and cultures is the biggest problem here in Quebec.”
Challenges faced by today’s immigrants
Jacobs, now president of the Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network, teaches history and works in tourism in Quebec City. He notes that as an oral minority, he faced different challenges than visible minorities face in Quebec.
“The lack of exposure of the general population outside Montreal to different religions and cultures is the biggest problem here in Quebec,” he says.
Ghazal says that he too did not face the same challenges as many immigrants in Quebec experience today.
“I was raised in a private French college,” Ghazal shares of his upbringing in Syria. He says he arrived in Quebec with several of his peers who went on to become engineers and doctors.
Ghazal married and raised two children in Victoriaville, where he worked as a teacher until his retirement 15 years ago.
“Today, many who arrive with diplomas like me find it more difficult to find employment,” he says. “A lot of engineers and doctors come here and are not recognized.”